By Christopher Renton
In the 2007 Palme d’Or nominated film Breath, a disenchanted suburban housewife becomes intrigued by news that a death row inmate has attempted suicide. Other than her young daughter and the media frenzy surrounding the prisoner, there is little that seems to stir her. Her husband is openly engaged in an affair with another woman, a behavior she rewards with complete silence. After being urged to “get out of the house and meet people,” she visits the prison. Soon after, she is making the trip every day in an effort to establish an affair of her own. The inmate, meanwhile, also silent due to his injuries, becomes infatuated with her, going so far as to keep a lock of her hair in his mouth. Once her husband discovers what has been transpiring, their bizarre love triangle reaches a crisis point.
With works like 3-Iron and the critically acclaimed Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, Ki-duk Kim has established himself as one of Korea’s leading auteur filmmakers. As such, it is strange that Facets’ week-long run of Breath is also its U.S. theatrical premiere. The film is worth seeing as, with most imported foreign cinema, it is more intellectually rigorous than ninety percent of what is produced domestically. Kim is a filmmaker that can never be accused of not trying. He reaches for meaning with every scene and, quite often, does not exceed his grasp. With this film, his technique is starkly effective and the performances he pulls from his actors, especially Ji-a Park as the wife Yeon, are transfixing. His touches of unfettered humanism are compelling, as well–the scene where she allows the prisoner, Jang-Jin, to pull and keep the strand of her hair; the cuckolded husband returning to present his rival with a nude photograph of his wife (in the film this does not seem overly outrageous) and a promise to treat her well; and the cellmate that tenderly presents an etching of Yeon to the lovelorn man in an effort to comfort him. The ending of the film, which I will not address here, is both provocative and captivating, leaving viewers with a great deal to discuss.
Too often, unfortunately, there is a tendency with this film to feel manipulated by Kim. He lenses his actress in her suburban “prison” with technical aptitude. Whenever possible we see her through glass or bar-like window treatments. But the visual conceit becomes redundant more quickly than he’d probably like it to. When the husband inelegantly confirms our more elegant suspicions that the technicolor wallpaper Yeon uses to decorate the visiting room is, in fact, a direct attempt to recreate the early romance of their marriage, you wonder if Kim isn’t smirking somewhere behind you. And Kim’s own portrayal as the voyeuristic prison warden, training his security camera on the illicit couple whose actions he is able to direct, is just too cute. As much as I enjoyed this film, I would like to see the same script remade by a director with better control over his/her intellectual narcissism.
Kim is a talented director–wonderfully restrained and engaging throughout much of this film. But the lack of dialogue adds to a feeling that we’re watching the walk-through of a skeleton treatment, the early visualization process of a complex script. The best Asian poetry finds beauty in its transparency. This film’s allusions, however, would have been more enjoyable with a little human interest opacity lain over them. I appreciate Kim’s dramatic and emotional efficiency, but what separates the greatest filmmakers is their ability to present us characters too strong, too human to be overwhelmed by the concepts their story represents.
Breath will be showing at Facets until Feb. 10th.
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